The presents have been unwrapped, the turkey has been eaten, the crackers have been pulled and the alcohol has been consumed in excess. But wishing that it could be Christmas every day, as Wizzard did circa 1973, has one major flaw – no football. Thankfully, unlike many other European leagues, British football does not take a winter break, and we are treated to a feast of football across all the divisions over the festive period. Boxing Day is perhaps the busiest annual day of football in Britain, with essentially every club having a match. However, nowhere holds these fixtures in more significance than in Northern Ireland.
By Colin Millar – @Millar_Colin
Traditionally, the Irish League has had a full programme of derby matches on Boxing Day where all local rivals play each other. Initially, this meant that away fans would not have to travel great distances in order to see their team, and then it grew to become arguably the most important date in the local football calendar. The games attract bumper crowds and no shortage of incidents.
The stellar rivalry in Northern Irish football is between sides known locally as the ‘Big Two’, such is the size and stature of the clubs – Linfield and Glentoran. South Belfast’s Linfield – affectionately known as ‘The Blues’ – are the most successful club in the history of Northern Irish football. Such is their dominance, they have won six league and cup ‘doubles’ in the past seven seasons and are the current reigning champions.
Glentoran, to the east of the city, have had their challenge derailed in recent seasons due to off-field problems which have threatened to make the club extinct. Mismanagement, false promises to fans and overpaying mediocre players has proved a poisonous cocktail for a club which only recently managed to pay their staff for two month’s unpaid wages.
However, despite being tipped for a mid-table finish, the Glens currently sit 3rd in the table, two places above the struggling Blues. It would be an understatement to say that Linfield’s season has been disappointing and inconsistent, and trophy-laden manager David Jeffrey has struggled to find a winning formula from his bloated 25-strong first-team squad.
A Linfield-Glentoran match would have drawn as many as 12,000 spectators up to five years ago, but these days it is expected to be only half that. Glentoran’s decline in playing standards has been reflected in a noticeable drop in attendances, and the lack of any real prolonged competitiveness has led to a knock-on effect on Linfield’s crowds.
Wednesday’s match will be a close one to call. Linfield have home advantage this year, and have never lost at home to Glentoran over the festive period – a remarkable record. However, Glentoran managed to triumph in all four league meetings between the clubs last season, including a 1-0 victory in the corresponding festive fixture.
Unusually, this year’s festive clash between the two will not draw the most intention. Instead, the table-topping clash will be taking place in the north of Belfast, as league-leaders Cliftonville face their closest challengers and local rivals Crusaders.
Cliftonville – ‘the Reds’ – lead the table by six points with a game to spare, as they hope to win their first league title in fifteen years. They have notched up an incredible 53 goals in their 20 league games, helped in no small part by striker Liam Boyce, who recently returned to the club after a spell at Werder Bremen in Germany. The Northern Ireland Under 21 striker is one of a number of astute signings by the canny Reds manager Tommy Breslin, who also this year snapped up two local players returning from England – goalkeeper Conor Devlin (Man United) and James Knowles (Blackburn). The Reds are known for the stylish passing football, and this has made them red-hot title favourites for this year.
In many ways, their North Belfast rivals Crusaders share much in common with them. Working on a relatively small budget, Crues manager Stephen Baxter is known for instilling a fighting spirit in his players and making sure they punch above their weight. They’ve worked the transfer market well too – snapping up the league’s top goalscorer last year: Gary McCutcheon from Ballymena United. They also persuaded centre-half Josh Robinson to return home after his spell at Glasgow Rangers ended, with the centre half tipped to make the move to an English Football League club. Captain Colin Coates has also resisted the temptation to move across the water, rejecting an opportunity from Doncaster Rovers.
This particular Boxing Day clash will certainly not be played in a Christmas spirit, with the only similarity likely to be the number of cards the referee is likely to produce. In the corresponding match in 2009, there were six red cards shown – four to Crusaders players, one to a Cliftonville player, alongside the Crusaders manager being given his marching orders. Cliftonville won the match 2-1, but these games are known for their feisty and somewhat unpleasant nature. The Reds have home advantage this year, and if they get the three points it would be hard to see any other side catching them at the top.
Outside of Belfast, only the M2 separates 7th-placed Ballymena United from 4th-placed Coleraine. Ballymena last month ended a 23-year trophy drought to lift the County Antrim Shield, but they have failed to replace striker Gary McCutcheon and this has shown in their wayward league form.
Sky Blues manager Glenn ‘Spike’ Ferguson is an Irish League legend and is widely tipped to manage his former club Linfield at some point, but in managerial terms he is still a rookie and pushing this Ballymena side into the top six is a realistic ambition. He will come up against former teammate Oran Kearney in the opposite dugout, who has done wonders in his short stint at the Bannsiders. He has built a side that is stubborn and tough to break down, and should be favourites to maintain their strong recent record against Ballymena.
Portadown will host Glenavon in the Mid-Ulster derby, which would have held a lot more prominence during the 1990s than it does today. That was the heyday for both these sides, whose financial clout ensured the pair challenged Linfield at the very top of Northern Irish football. This culminated on the final day of the 1994 season, when the two Mid Ulster sides played out a league decider in front of upwards of 15,000 fans. In a pulsating match, Portadown came from two goals down to draw 2-2, allowing Linfield to snatch the title at the death following their last day win over Glentoran.
It is arguable that neither club has quite reached the same heights since, especially Glenavon. Now managed by Gary Hamilton, the Lurgan Blues are 9th in the table and have failed to mount any form of title challenge in nearly 15 years. Portadown have had sparring success – they eventually did land the league title in 2002, and then the Irish Cup in 2005. Still managed by the evergreen Ronnie McFall, the side have had their up’s and down’s over the years.
Their low point came in 2008, when a bizarre administration error and late hand-in meant that the club forgot to register for the new IFA Premiership format of the league, and were relegated to the IFA Championship. However, they bounced straight back up and finished last season second only to Linfield. They are struggling again though, languishing in 8th, but have secured the signature of Shamrock Rovers striker Gary Twigg, who is expected to take his devastating goal scoring form with him north of the border. Not to be outdone, Glenavon landed the coup of signing Derry City striker Mark Farren. Expect both clubs to have a stronger second half of the season, but Portadown will be confident of taking the spoils in this particular game.
Dungannon Swifts v Ballinamallard United is a new rivalry, as this is the Mallards first season in the top flight in their history. They are the only professional football club in Fermanagh, and have performed above expectations for the season and are flying high in 6th, and only four points off third. Dungannon are from the neighbouring county of Tyrone, and they too have a fantastic set-up which has stabilised them as a top flight club.
The one remaining fixture is a basement battle between Lisburn Distillery and Donegal Celtic – rivals only in the sense that they are both locked horns at the bottom of the table. Lisburn Distillery are an exiled Belfast club, and have no real support to draw on. The same can be said of Donegal Celtic, who up until a late surge through the divisions were an amateur outfit. Both names are deceiving – Donegal Celtic aren’t from Donegal at all, but West Belfast. While Lisburn Distillery play at a dog track in Ballyskeagh – slightly closer to Belfast than Lisburn. It’s impossible to predict the victor here, but it the definition of a relegation six-pointer.
It promises to be another fascinating round of Boxing Day fixtures in Ulster as thousands will go out to support their local club and get a taste of traditional rivalry first hand. Hopefully there’ll be a few Christmas crackers in there too.
How does Boxing Day compare where you live? Tweet us @talkingbaws or comment below.